I’m not sure what it is about foxes that seems to make them so popular as gaming protagonists. From Fox McCloud to Titus and indie games like Seasons After Fall or Stories: Paths of Destiny, vulpes vulpes is perhaps over-represented in games. Maybe it is the animal’s reputation for cunning and trickiness, maybe it’s a kind of unconscious response to the centuries of treating the beast as the target for sport. Either way, Bonus Entertainment’s new ’16-bit’ platformer puts the red scavenger front and centre in Fox n Forests.
You play a fox called Rick who must put aside his selfish predatory ways in order to prevent the forest from being possessed by evil forces. Rick must jump, climb, slash and shoot his way through levels representing the four seasons to save the day.
Fox n Forests’ inspirations are obvious to see. A deliberate homage to the platformers that dominated the gaming scene during the heyday of the SNES and Mega Drive – that’s the Genesis for our transatlantic readers – Bonus Entertainment have worked hard to capture the look and feel of the period. The pixel art graphics have a fantastically authentic style that brought memories of my childhood flooding back. Everything is bold and colourful, whilst also retaining a clarity that is often lacking in contemporary attempts at a retro aesthetics. The various seasonal levels are well defined and the ways in which the levels shift with seasonal change is a particularly nice touch.
Rick is at first a reluctant hero; he’s recruited into action when a partridge named Patty saves herself from being Rick’s lunch by negotiating for his help. This wonderfully silly opening sets the mood for the adventure to come, as the banter between the taciturn fox and the perky partridge continues throughout. A bizarre bonus scene unlocked through completion of the game takes this relationship to its conclusion, but I won’t spoil that here. Once Rick is persuaded to help, Patty takes over the various upgrade shops available in the main hub area, and also flies Rick around in two side scrolling shooter levels.
Progression in the game involves an unusual but innovative mix of traditional levels and Metroidvania ability unlocking. This approach demands that early levels need to replayed with new skills and powers, but removes the excessive backtracking that can be so detrimental to the more expansive examples of the Metroidvania genre. Replaying is necessary because later levels are unlocked through collecting the magic seeds that are hidden in hard to reach locations throughout. A certain number are required in order to grow the magic sapling that opens the way to a new season. Obviously this makes no sense whatsoever, but is perfectly in keeping with the vague notion of forest management throughout the game.
Alongside the aforementioned magic seeds, there are gems to increase your magic bar and stones that can be used to sharpen your weapon and increase its damage. Some of these are very tricky to track down and demand that you fully explore the surprisingly complex levels. The main drawback to this approach, however, is the lack of a map to remind you which parts of the level have yet to be uncovered fully. This can lead to frustration in the levels that expand vertically. I still have 2 seeds to find and have replayed the relevant levels more times than I might wish.
Rick the fox is armed with a magical melee crossbow that means he can both shoot and slash foes. Progressing through the game also unlocks three magical attacks: triple shot, fire arrows, and boomerangs. These are needed to activate coloured switches scattered across the levels and are the main aim of the backtracking through previous levels.
In a nice nod to classic Zelda games, there are also bottles to be found that enable you to carry powerful attack potions into battle. These are especially effective against the end bosses that conclude each set of seasonal levels. You also have the ability to call forth a different season at the expense of mana. This may freeze a river or grow fruit that you can climb. It’s not as involved as a similar mechanic in the lovely Seasons After Fall, since here you can only switch between a predetermined pair of seasons, but it does add a nice puzzle element to navigating the levels.
Controlling Rick is mostly smooth and enjoyable, with a welcome weightiness to his actions. By the end of the game when you have all of Rick’s abilities unlocked, he can carve his way through enemies with relative ease, an aspect that does help to alleviate the possible repetitiveness of going back over completed levels to search for collectables. There are, however, some frustrating enemy placements which make for some annoying falls, and the collision detection is sometimes a little too authentically retro for its own good. This is particularly apparent in the flying levels which are annoying until you get the hang of how big the collision box is.
Bosses are fun and all employ some degree of puzzle solving. From a giant frog that blows poisonous bubbles at you to a spider that would make Shelob run and hide, all of them are suitably epic and provide a good challenge and your season switching abilities are essential in these fights. It is a shame, therefore, that there is no way to replay the boss encounters without restarting the game. I would have liked the opportunity to take them out with my upgraded fox as revenge for the difficulties I had in first encountering them.
Fox n Forests is a really enjoyable throwback to its 16-bit inspirations. It takes the style, gameplay, and mechanics of early platformers and produces a game that both feels like a lost classic and remains fun and involving to play. Its main negative is perhaps an inevitable result of its close adherence to historical precedence as it is fairly short. It’s a bit short but there is increased longevity in finding all the collectables or playing through at harder skill levels, but the challenge is generally gauged well enough on normal that the latter didn’t appeal to me. If you fancy some truly retro gaming fun it is well worth picking up and it is definitely a fox you’ll want to hunt out when on sale.
Version tested: PC – Also available for PS4, Xbox One & Switch